In the United States, we are intimately familiar with the “melting pot” philosophy. Being mostly a country of immigrants, we began with a blending of cultures. Over the years, we just kept adding to it. Everyone who comes here adds something and we are all better for it. Though there has been tussling along the way, and a lot of angling for control of the melody, overall we do all right…until religion enters the picture.
It doesn’t matter what religion, really. America is certainly primarily a Christian country, but we’ve got some of everything. We even have the Flying Spaghetti Monster. The problem is that no one seems to take a “melting pot” philosophy to religion. The Presbyterians stay in their churches, completely sure that their version of Christianity is the right one, the Jews go to the synagogue and hold tightly to their version of the Truth. The Muslims visit their mosques and hope they aren’t viewed as fanatics by their neighbors, while the Wiccans find secluded fields for their rituals under the moon. I get solicitations in my mail for the “right” church for me, and radio stations point me in the way of the True Church of Jesus on a regular basis. All we are doing with this “One True God” nonsense is holding ourselves, as individuals and a culture, back. You can’t make stone soup with just rocks.
There are a couple of notable examples of religious casseroles in relatively recent history, and I point them out in an effort to illustrate that we can get past our prejudices to build something greater. When religion comes up in discussion, whether we are talking about abortion, war, or neighborhood planning committees, we commonly dismiss it with a general statement about how religious differences are irreconcilable. This is patently untrue.
Two of the best examples of the blending of religion we have in the United States are Voodoo and its close cousin, Santaria. These religions developed out of a blending of ancient African religious systems with each other and with Christianity. Voodoo originated in Haiti when shipments of slaves from various African regions were thrust together under Christian “masters”. Under these miserable and extraordinary circumstances…a new religion was formed. Rather than killing each other, rather than dissolving their beliefs under the new authority, they blended their indigenous beliefs with what they found…and voila! A new religion. An amalgamation of Christianity and tribal beliefs that was beautiful, powerful, and…magical.
Santaria developed from the Yoruba people of Western Africa as they were imported by the slave trade into Central and South America. Like Voodoo, its practitioners originally hid their actual belief system under the drapings of their Christian “masters”, until eventually a new, blended religion was formed.
Here in the Bible Belt, we have another, less well known, example. When Irish immigrants arrived in the soft Appalachian mountains, they brought with them a synthesis of Irish pagan and Catholic beliefs. Upon setting up shop, they mingled with the Native Americans…and another new belief system was born. Incorporating the faerie mythology of the Irish with the spirits of the natives and the symbolism of the church, Appalachian Granny Magic wasn’t quite a religion, not quite a secular practice. Magic and religion and practical concerns became one path, out of which many skilled midwives and herbalists and lay preachers were created.
The Romans, in their hey-day, greatly strengthened their expansionist policies by allowing the religious beliefs of conquered lands to continue to exist, and this often led to an incorporation of foreign religious beliefs into their own. Hinduism was created out of the blending of the religious systems of the native Indian Harappans with those of the invading Aryans, and in turn influenced and was influenced by the advent of Buddhism. Islam grew out of a desire to convey a “purer” version of the truth than Christianity and Judaism, and Christianity, itself, managed to acquire many pagan symbols and stories as it developed. Truly, there is no “pure, unadulterated” version of religion. All of them, in essence, are a blending of myriad truths and stories.
How, then, is this applicable as we contemplate a world situation in which violence and intolerance are increasingly based on religious differences?
Looking at history, it seems apparent that while religious blending can be accomplished through force (as in the case of Voodoo and Santaria), the most beneficial combinations to society as a whole arise from voluntary mingling of the practitioners. Living side by side with other religious systems often reveals that what on the surface may seem irreconcilable differences are, in fact, merely different names and rituals with the same end goal. If one person shows up at another’s house with a pound of fruit cake and a “Merry Christmas”, only to be received with some sun-shaped cookies and a “Happy Yule,” does it really matter who calls themselves what? After all, there’s still a decorated tree in the corner.
Overcoming religious prejudice is vital to our success as a species. On a pragmatic level, the United States, with its increasing reliance on foreign nations for the stability of its economy (bye-bye, isolationism, you are a dream of the past), must learn to look to what will provide long term stability in its relations with its trading partners. We could, of course, simply set out to take over by force any nations with assets we covet who will not submit to our terms. This is a short term strategy, however, as we require the voluntary participation of the residents of these nations if we are to maintain our economic interests there. Continuing to emphasize the differences in our peoples (such as religion) will only increase the difficulty of reaching mutually satisfactory agreements. A better strategy would be to have a comprehensive understanding of the precepts of another culture, and an ability to emphasize where their belief systems meet our own. In a sense, perhaps this was what Ahmadinejad was trying to do with his now-infamous letter to President Bush, although that letter was summarily dismissed by the administration as “irrelevant”.
The name of God is, in fact, quite irrelevant when it comes to establishing foreign policy. We must not be so insistent in standing on our laurels that we forget what is best for the people of our nation. We can, and must for our own well-being, step across the imaginary theocratic divide and find the places where our beliefs meet. If we wind up kneeling toward Mecca, perhaps we will learn from the experience. If Arabic leaders learn to sing “Ave Maria”, it is not the end of the world. The people of all nations can learn to accept the truths where religions meet, particularly if they are not encouraged to fear their neighbors. Creating a religious scapegoat has, historically, backfired on its creator. This is not the position we want to be in. Our emphasis on an “us and them” mentality will only ensure our decline.
Accepting the beauty of another religion does not mean the end of your own. It is merely the beginning of a deeper understanding.